SPORTING LIFE

Revival puts Bubba & Manny on top again

American Bubba Watson walking with his son Caleb off the 18th green on Sunday after winning the Masters by three strokes over Jonas Blixt and Jordan Spieth at Augusta National Golf Club.
American Bubba Watson walking with his son Caleb off the 18th green on Sunday after winning the Masters by three strokes over Jonas Blixt and Jordan Spieth at Augusta National Golf Club.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
American Bubba Watson walking with his son Caleb off the 18th green on Sunday after winning the Masters by three strokes over Jonas Blixt and Jordan Spieth at Augusta National Golf Club.
American Bubba Watson walking with his son Caleb off the 18th green on Sunday after winning the Masters by three strokes over Jonas Blixt and Jordan Spieth at Augusta National Golf Club.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Two men, one half-naked and all refined athleticism, the other lumbering and over-dressed, his shirt buttoned up. Two arenas, one roughly 20 x 20 feet with no place to hide, the other 7,435 yards where even the best look lost. Two crowds, one hollering for blood in a Las Vegas coliseum, the other reverential in a green church called Augusta. Two prizes, to be won and worn, one a tidy, green jacket, the other a gaudy, over-sized belt.

And two performers, of athletic middle-age, both chasing the most ancient of sporting stories.

The comeback.

The compact boxer Manny Pacquiao, who wanted his WBO welterweight title back, and the rangy golfer Bubba Watson, craving a new green jacket in his closet, are divided not just by 22cm of height. One might say one man uses a club in his fists and the other uses his fists to club.

Born 42 days apart in the winter of 1978, 35, as an age, means different things to them. The golfer still has sufficient years to build his greatness, the boxer is just about holding onto his. One man has time, the other's is slipping away like sand from a cracked hour-glass.

Both men are not without playful similarity. Watson - on the day of his final round - was offering sunglasses as a prize for anyone who answered trivia questions he posed on Twitter. Pacquiao's jauntiness was advertised on the same medium through a list of his pre-fight music. Needless to say, one was Daft Punk's Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.

Watson attends bible study on tour and Pacquiao, no less a committed Christian, has his feats reviewed in The Gospel Herald. Faith in a higher power is fine, but faith in a pure, precise power that flows through their hands is vital, too. When both men play, a sort of holy hell breaks loose.

Except people said they had misplaced fire and focus. Watson won the 2012 Masters and victory, as it can do, played havoc with his head. Some men, named Tiger Woods, see a first Major as only the start of a historic collection. Other men are simply unsettled by the enormity of a single one.

Watson, "overwhelmed" by his first Masters victory, did not win again till February this year. Celebration had replaced practice, pressure had subdued a free spirit, fatherhood - he adopted a son in 2012 - was his focus. "It took me a while learning to be a dad and learning to have a green jacket with me," he said. Victory on Sunday is proof of his education.

Watson is the crafter of shots that become legend, Pacquiao's career has long been installed in legend. He has written a furious history yet still he fights, till the day he runs out of punches or into too many. There are few fairy-tale endings in the "tragic theatre" - to use writer Joyce Carol Oates' phrase - that is boxing.

Two losses in 2012 suggested a fading fighter of slower hands and dissolving killer instinct, but Pacquiao - who did win in late 2013 - is built of muscle but also pride. Timothy Bradley had beaten him and so Bradley had to be beaten. The rematch was as much revenge as it was rebirth. Unlike Watson, learning to be a champion, Pacquio's voice was telling him he hadn't forgotten to be a champion. A lesser one, but still one.

Both men fought classic duels against younger men, using experience to separate them. The boxer required 32 stitches later near his eye but kept coming against Bradley, 30, with 563 thrown punches of which 35 per cent landed. The golfer needed only tissues for his weeping eyes and landed his own combinations, playing the last 11 holes two-under while Jordan Spieth, 20, was three over.

On the surface it appeared the execution of a calm, efficient plan, but beneath it they were operating as if in a relentless trance. Said Watson: "I don't remember the last few holes."

Everyone revels in the comeback - just ask Liverpool and that other mid-30s marvel Steven Gerrard, both searching for an EPL title - for it plays into life's most elemental struggle: hope versus adversity. Human beings stumble, but sport, more than other field, offers us visible proof of the restored career, the second chance, the redeemed hero.

The comeback convinces us that even for the distracted, the ageing, the vulnerable, there is a way back. It reminds us persistence is the only way to excavate talent, it reassures athletes they were right to believe in themselves, it tells their peers that revival is within their grasp.

It is why comebacks move us. And them. At the end, Watson bent over briefly, put his hands to his knees, then wept. At the end, Pacquiao rested on his knees - in presumed prayer - in front of his corner. We forget sometimes how powerful a force victory is, but now we know again. It can leave two men folded and fallen. And also, for a while, unforgettable.

rohitb@sph.com.sg